Time for Afghan refugees’ repatriation
IT is more than three and a half decades now that Afghan refugees are living in Pakistan, and among them there are criminals who are responsible for deteriorating law and order situation of the country. There is a widespread perception that they have become a security risk, as it is difficult to separate extremist elements who live in the disguise of refugees. It is high time that they are sent back, as nation wants them to leave the country immediately. Since Pakistan joined the war on terror, Pakistan suffered heavily in men and material, yet Afghan government continued to blame Pakistan for any terror act in Afghanistan. Last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had requested Pakistan to review its December 31, 2015 deadline for the repatriation of Afghan refugees from the country. UNHCR chief António Guterres had called on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his visit.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had said: “Pakistan took care of Afghan refugees as a sacred duty and their return with dignity is a priority for the government.” Anyhow, the time has come that international community should focus on repatriation of Afghan refugees to Afghanistan. The US/NATO and Afghan government had entered into a strategic treaty through signing of Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). In this milieu it should have also been binding on both sides to resolve the issue of millions of Afghan Refugees (ARs). The UN and its subsidiary organizations like UNHCR must come forward to take up the matter with the US, NATO and EU member countries to arrange repatriation of ARs to their homeland. In the overview of 2015 UNHCR country operations profile Afghanistan, it was anticipated that the newly-formed national unity Government would create an enabling environment for sustainable return of Afghan refugees.
The Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR) remains the main policy framework for sustainable reintegration of those returning to Afghanistan. It stated that “insurgency continues to spread from southern Afghanistan to large areas of the north and centre and is likely to remain a threat to stability in 2015”. The question is if due to policies of the Afghan government peace is not achieved, will Pakistan continue to suffer? It has to be mentioned that many undesirable elements disguised as refugees are involved in crimes like murder, taking people ransom for money and drug trafficking. Officially, the year 2015 marked the end of the agreement that Pakistan had with Afghanistan and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Pakistan Foreign Office had said that it would like that the UNHCR and international community to help the Afghan government in creating necessary environment inside Afghanistan so that these people can return.
But instead of taking action, Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) had advised Pakistan to ease the insecure lives of the millions of Afghan refugees on its territory. It asked Pakistan to sign and ratify the 1951 Refugees Convention and its 1967 Protocol; and that it should enact a national law for refugees codifying long-term protection and rights. International community should realize that for more than three decades, the government and the people of Pakistan have accommodated these refugees who are settled throughout Pakistan. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some 1.6 million Afghans are legally residing in Pakistan, having been granted proof of registration (PoR) by the U.N. body. More than twice that number is believed to be unlawfully dwelling here, primarily in the northern tribal belt that borders Afghanistan. Having that said, UNHCR should make arrangements to repatriate Afghan refugees to relieve burden on Pakistan.
The UNHCR has been opposing forced return of the refugees and insists that Islamabad should go for voluntary repatriation of Afghans. According to the UN agency, only 56,000 Afghans had gone back to their homeland since January last year under the voluntary repatriation program
The UNHCR is paying $150 to each refugee returning under the program. Officials believe that voluntary repatriation program has been a “joke” and may never resolve the issue even in 10 to 15 years. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chamber of Commerce & Industry has been saying that the presence of the Afghans in the province puts a strain on its infrastructure and its fragile economy. UNHCR spokesperson said the Afghan government with the assistance of donors had planned to build 48 reintegration sites for refugees who after return would get shelter. She said that work on 19 sites was in progress in different provinces of Afghanistan.
Pakistan is host to 1.5 million PoR card holders, their date expired on Dec 31, 2015, which had been extended to June 30 2016. They constitute the world’s largest protracted refugee population under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate in a single country. In addition, according to Pakistan government estimates, there are about 1 million undocumented Afghans residing in Pakistan. Those populations include many who fled conflict and repression in Afghanistan during the late 1970s and early 1980s including their descendants. Some arrived as children, grew up in Pakistan, married, and had children of their own who have never lived in Afghanistan. Others have arrived in the decades of turmoil in Afghanistan since, seeking security, employment, and a higher standard of living. A large number of Afghan refugees now own prime properties in all major cities including in the federal capital.
It means that they are depriving local people of jobs and business opportunities, as many of them are in business and are among the richest people in Islamabad and other parts of Pakistan. In the past, Pakistan had repeatedly extended several deadlines it had fixed for the return of the refugees at the request of Kabul and UNHCR. The last deadline had expired in December 2015; however, it extended the deadline till June 2016 on the request of Afghan government and UNHCR. Pakistan has been trying to help Afghanistan in the peace process, but Afghan governments have been ungrateful in the sense that they always blamed Pakistan for unrest or any terror attack in Afghanistan. In this backdrop, the government should not extend any more date or give a new timeframe, but ask the UNHCR to make arrangements to repatriate the Afghan Refugees immediately. —The writer is a senior journalist based in Lahore.